The Gambia: a milestone for West African democracy

photograph of current president of The Gambia Adama Barrow

Adama Barrow / Google


On February 18 Adama Barrow was inaugurated in front of thousands of his countrymen and several African heads of state. He has promised widespread democratic reform, a crackdown on corruption, and is set to rebuild The Gambia’s image on the world stage – already taking steps to re-join the International Criminal Court and the Commonwealth. The Gambia’s future looks brighter than it has for some time.

Turn back just over a month, and the country’s fate was not so clear. When the 22-year rule of strongman Yahya Jammeh was coming to a close, it was far from certain how the end-game would play out. His tendency to use security forces to suppress internal dissent, as well as his ties to the military (which first installed him as president), meant that a peaceful resolution was far from guaranteed. A man who once vowed he would achieve a ‘billion-year’ rule is not one you would expect to go quietly.

Mercifully, Jammeh departed without bloodshed, although not without some convincing. A concerted effort by ECOWAS, the 15-member state West African Regional Union, was able to prise him from power with a careful balance of force and diplomacy. ECOWAS forces surrounded The Gambia, poised to invade, while at the same time engaging in diplomatic efforts to ensure a palatable option for departure with Jammeh eventually succumbing to the latter.

Not a single member state objected to action against Jammeh. ECOWAS spoke with a clear and unified voice; that they would not tolerate leaders who attempt to cling to power and demonstrated that they were willing to defend the democratic will of the people – by force if necessary.

Yammeh’s departure will do much to bolster West Africa’s democratic credentials, however there is still much to be done. In The Gambia itself, work must start on rebuilding the country’s democratic institutions after two decades of suppression. Reforms must usher in greater freedom of the press, a more independent judiciary, and, crucially, electoral reform to impose presidential term limits.


white pick up truck with two men standing in the back, one in the foreground with scarf over head, african flag

Car with activists heading to an electoral campaign rally for Jomav, Guinea | Photograph Gaborbasch / Shutterstock


The need for democratic reform doesn’t end with The Gambia. Eight out of the fifteen ECOWAS member states – Burkina Faso, Côte D’Ivoire, The Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Togo – fail to rank in the top 100 countries of The Economist’s Democracy Index 2016.

Togo, too, has no presidential term limits, with Faure Gnassingbé currently serving his third five-year term. While the presidential elections were deemed ‘free and fair’, another five years in power further entrenches the ruling dynasty that started with the 38-year rule of Faure’s father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma.

If public opinion turns against Faure, it is unclear whether he will voluntarily relinquish control over the country that he and his father have ruled for a combined 50-years. The circumstances of Jammeh’s removal will hopefully serve to deter such thinking, and clearly signal the intent of ECOWAS to strengthen democracy in the region.

In the more immediate future, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Mali all face presidential elections over the next two years. ECOWAS must maintain pressure on these countries to hold free and fair elections, especially in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where their respective presidents are approaching the end of their constitutional term limit.

As the people of The Gambia celebrate the start of Adama Barrow’s historic administration, positive sentiment should extend to the whole region. While there are threats ahead, and much work to be done, Barrow’s presidency marks a significant milestone for West African democracy.

Find out more:

New York Times – Why democracy prevailed in Gambia

BBC News – West Africa – from dictator’s club to upholder of democracy

Thumbnail image: Gambian men work on construction of a building | Photograph Anton Ivanov/Shutterstock


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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